Biggest Party Ever!
Alan Jackson draws between 4-5,000 boats full of fans to Lake Martin’s AquaPalooza event
By Katie Cole
Lake Martin’s gone country.
Alan Jackson’s minor tweak to the lyrics of “Gone Country” couldn’t have been more accurate.
Tens of thousands of visitors crowded into the Kowaliga area on Lake Martin to watch Jackson and other country acts take the on-water stage for Sea Ray’s Signature AquaPalooza boat party on July 25.
A final boat count – a head count is pretty much impossible – is still a few weeks away, but event officials believe turnout was much higher than expected. An aerial count estimated four to five thousand watercraft, including boats and jet skis, and up to 50,000 people were present during Jackson’s concert. “It was unbelievable. That’s the word of the day, unbelievable. They’re saying 40-50,000 people (attended),” said Dave Commander, vice president of marketing for Russell Lands and general manager of Russell Marine.
All of the almost 800 mooring lines placed in the water in front of the stage had been filled by 11 a.m. Saturday when Birmingham-based cover band National Coverage opened the concert. Additional boats packed into the water behind the mooring lines, and those who left their boats the previous night either returned by jet ski or waited for up to two hours for a shuttle at Sinclair’s dock.
“Nerves of steel is all it’s going to take. It’s tenement housing at its best,” said John Thompson, a Lake Martin Resource Association volunteer who spent the weekend maneuvering his pontoon shuttle through the narrow lanes.
Jypsi took the stage at 12:45 p.m. to a decent-sized if somewhat unanimated crowd. With multiple piercings, hipster clothing and in one case, cotton-candy-pink hair, the sibling quartet looked better suited to a New York City club, but the crowd seemed to enjoy the band’s music, which defies categorization but for simplicity’s sake can be described as bluegrass. Caitlin and Will began at 2 p.m. and the duo’s rock-influenced country set drew cheers from many in the water.
Matt Stillwell livened up the crowd considerably at 3:15 p.m. with his energetic act, which included songs from his recently released album “Shine” and covers of old favorites, like “Dixie Land Delight.” Stillwell said the AquaPalooza concert had a “great vibe” and was unlike anything he’d ever done.
“I played at the amphitheater last night,” Stillwell said. “It’s different when you have something this big. But because you’re up so high, they don’t seem that far away.”
Stillwell got the people on the dance barge to dance, and he led the crowd in “a holler and a swaller” – a group yell and swig of beer.
“These people are pretty much my niche, for sure,” Stillwell said.
The Carter Twins’ act began at 4:30 p.m. The 19-year-old Ohio natives, who are signed to Country Music Television label, have been touring for only a few months but worked the crowd like professionals.
“We’ve never played to people on boats,” Zach Carter said. “It was awesome. If they’re having fun, we’re having fun.”
Shortly before Jackson took the stage, CMT videoed the crowd partying. By this time, thousands of boats were packed into Kowaliga Bay, and the swimming area was completely full – girls standing on boys’ shoulders, people throwing beach balls, waving their arms and cheering. The VIP beach barge was packed with Sea Ray and CMT executives and several of the artists. In the mooring lines and beyond, people had climbed onto the roofs of their boats and several “We love CMT” and “We love Alan” signs could be seen above the swimmers and boats.
Jackson’s set included many of his old and new favorites, including “Pop a Top,” “Living on Love,” “Small Town” and “Remember When.” It was Jackson’s diverse mix of songs that convinced CMT to film the concert, according to Jay Frank, senior vice president for music strategy at CMT. CMT’s involvement with AquaPalooza – they’re airing the special on Labor Day weekend – came after Jackson had committed to the concert.
“He said ‘We’re doing this, do you want to be in on it?’ It took us about a day, and we said ‘Of course,’” Frank said. “As far as I’m concerned, broadcasting this is the capper of a year and a half of sold partnership with Alan Jackson. This feels like a little reward for all of our work.”
For Jackson, performing at the AquaPalooza concert was a personal decision. Jackson grew up in Newnan, Ga., and came to the lake often as a child. He has supported the local charity Children’s Harbor, and he referred to Lake Martin numerous times during his concert.
“I’m proud to be here tonight. I came here to this lake a lot as a young boy,” Jackson said early in his act. Near the end of the concert, Jackson shared that the lyrics to his song “Drive” were about his father teaching him how to drive a boat on Lake Martin. When Jackson sang “just a little lake across the Alabama line,” the crowd roared its approval.
“It’s a big treat for me to come up here,” Jackson said. “I grew up in Georgia, in a little town below Atlanta, Newnan, Ga. We used to come here to Wind Creek State Park to ski. It’s a big part of my childhood, this lake.”
Commander said he was pleased the weekend passed without any life-threatening accidents, and he commended law enforcement officials and medical professionals for their work. Police responded to several situations, including underage drinking and a few fistfights, according to Robert Silwowski of the Elmore County Police Department and Lt. Dennis Hill of the Alabama Beverage Control.
Dr. John James, chief of staff at Russell Medical Center and owner of Pricare, operated a medical tent on the Kowaliga shore. James, his fellow PriCare doctors, numerous fire departments and LifeSaver helicopter workers responded to many medical situations varying in severity. Most of the situations were superficial, such as cuts and overheating. However, the LifeSaver helicopter did transport a couple of people with broken legs. It also took a man, who had severed his finger while diving off a boat, to a Birmingham hospital.
Commander deemed the concert and the entire weekend a success. Saturday’s concerts were the big draw, but the weekend also offered other events. Friday’s scavenger hunt, Tour of the Ridge homes and amphitheater concerts were all fairly well attended.
I know we’d love to have something like that (again), but it would be hard to duplicate,” Commander said. “It took a lot of hard work, a lot of effort, a lot of work from volunteers from throughout the city and volunteers from our organization.”
For the AquaPalooza attendants – mostly Alabamians and many Lake Martin regulars – AquaPalooza was a perfect and personal way to the end the summer.
Bob “Mocantey” Morgan, a self-proclaimed “fan of fun,” has a summer home on Lake Martin. He said AquaPalooza was the biggest and best event Lake Martin has ever hosted.
“I’ve been on this lake for 40-something years and this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”